August 9th, 2012
I recently read a wonderful book called I Remember by Joe Brainard. Dan Chiasson, writing about Brainard recently on the New Yorker’s blog, called it “one of the twenty or so most important American autobiographies.” But it’s probably unlike any autobiography you’ve ever read. Indeed, it’s essentially a book-length prose poem, composed of snippets of Brainard’s memories, all of which begin with “I remember . . . .” It’s an ingenious way to craft a type of memoir—perhaps a more honest way to do so as well. Because most of my memories of childhood come in shards like these—stolen moments, stray memories, vivid or not-so-vivid fragments, all of which might add up to a portrait of a childhood, a life, a person.
Brainard was born in 1941, in Arkansas, but he grew up in Tulsa, before moving to New York as a young man, like many an aspiring artist. He was a painter and visual artist mainly, but he’s also famous for his poetry, and especially for I Remember. Recently, The Library of America published The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard—a true sign that he’s now a part of the canon of great American writers. Most of that reputation rests on I Remember. Really, it’s an ingenious, wholly original book. Though it doesn’t seem original, does it? “I remember” is such a common phrase, a common way to reminisce. But Brainard’s book is not just slapdash and haphazard. It’s artfully constructed, and, as I said, forms a kind of portrait of the artist as a child and young man.
The format is so addictive that I’ve started to try my own hand at it. Sure, it can’t compare to Brainard’s, but as an exercise it has already spurred my memory to conjure images and moments that are floating around in my brain, waiting to be pinned down on the page. I can’t imagine writing a standard narrative memoir—my life is just not interesting enough for that, and besides, writing such a book holds no interest for me (and probably not for readers either!). But something like I Remember—well, it’s fun, and seems more honest.
Here are some snippets of what I’ve come up with so far. I think I’ll keep a running “I Remember” document now, as long as these stray memories pop into my head .
I remember Dean and Ollie, nurses at Dr. Trice’s office. Dean was skinny, Ollie was fat. I remember that when Dean gave me a shot, it hurt. When Ollie gave me a shot, it still hurt, but it hurt less.
I remember Dr. Trice’s cold hands.
I remember getting a lollipop after each doctor’s appointment.
I remember always being worried about having to get a shot whenever I went to the doctor. Usually I had reason to worry.
I remember getting a shot once, when I was ten, right before a surgery to have a (benign) cyst removed. The shot hurt so bad that I’ve never forgotten what was on the hospital TV at the time—The Miracle Worker, the one starring Melissa Gilbert.
I remember Little House in the Prairie. I remember being afraid of Nellie because she was so mean. I remember the little girl who played Carrie falling down the hill in the opening credits. I remember Mary going blind and being traumatized. I remember being envious of the Olson kids because they could freely raid the candy jars of the general store.
I remember spending most of my allowance on candy.
I remember walking to Mr. Qwik to buy candy. I went for hard stuff, not candy bars—jawbreakers, Red Hots, Gobstoppers, Sweet Tarts, Spree, Jolly Ranchers.
I remember going to the dentist once and having five cavities.
I remember Mom called Mr. Qwik “Mr. Pits,” because she thought it was the pits.
I remember that they sold potato logs at the “hot food” counter at Mr. Qwik. I remember our neighbor Jimmy always bought and ate them. I thought they looked disgusting.
I remember that Mr. Qwik sold porn magazines, and I could see the tops of them peeping out from behind the other magazines. I remember never having the nerve to look at them.
August 8th, 2012
NPR.org recently held a contest in which their listeners could nominate their favorite “Teen” novels of all time. Well, the results of this noble and fun endeavor are in. Over 1,200 books were nominated. Then a panel of judges whittled down all of those nominees to a list of 235. From that list, listeners were asked to select their ten favorites. And the result is the “100 Best-Ever Teen Novels.” You can see the list here. And you can read more about the judges’ inclusion/exclusion criteria here (e.g., A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was excluded as “too mature,” and most Newbery winners were excluded because they skewed “too young”—hence no Little House books).
The whole thing was, of course, a popularity contest, and the results reflect this. The Harry Potter series comes in at #1, and Hunger Games trilogy lands at #2. And then there are the popular and undisputed classics like To Kill a Mockingbird (#3), The Catcher in the Rye (#6), and The Outsiders (#13). But overall, the list leans heavily toward contemporary, newer fare—books that, to be honest, are hardly classics. Or, I should say, there are many books that really haven’t ripened on the vine yet. John Green, a truly talented writer, has five books on the list, and two in the Top 10 alone. Okay, as I said, he’s a talent, and his popularity is staggering for a “literary” novelist in this day and age. But really? All of his books are on the 100 Best of All Time list? That’s a bit much. I won’t name any other dubious inclusions, to avoid being totally ostracized from the YA world. But many mediocre (and of course bestselling) books on the list outrank TRUE classics like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (#26), Forever by Judy Blume (#46), and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (#61).
Besides lacking a lot of lesser-known gems (my own nominees include I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip. by John Donovan, Z is for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien, and The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp), the list is also pretty, well, white, which was pointed out by a friend on Twitter. Indeed, there are just a two books by writers of color (Sherman Alexie, Sandra Cisneros). Yikes.
So, yeah, it’s an insanely imperfect list. But it’s the nature of the beast, right? So check it out. There are still truly some great books on there amidst the undeserving throngs. And, if nothing else, the list can give you sense of the most “popular” books that teens are reading these days.
May 16th, 2012
I’m excited and honored that What They Always Tell Us is the first pick of My Story Book Club, which is being launched this month by Lambda Literary. My Story Book Club is an offshoot of another great Lambda endeavor, LGBT Writers in Schools, and is “a place where LGBT youth and their supporters can read a story like their own and participate in an open discussion with like-minded readers.” Again, I’m honored to be a part of what will prove to be a great resource for LGBT youth.
You can also, most importantly, donate a copy of the book! My Story has partnered with Skylight Books in Los Angeles, and for a flat fee of $20, Skylight will buy a My Story selection and will donate it to a community center, high school, or nonprofit organization that is building its own LGBT library. More information about donating, and about My Story, can be found here.
Anyway, all this month, teens (and others) will be reading What They Always Tell Us, and then there will be an online discussion on Good Reads on May 30 at 8pm EST. Please, spread the word. After my book, there will be a book a month from here on out. You can find the upcoming schedule on the main web site. A lot of great stuff to come. You can also join the My Story discussion on Good Reads here. There’s even a Flash Fiction contest—check it out!
Finally, here’s a cool video of a 5-question “Proustian” questionnaire I did for My Story. But I’ll also paste the interview below.
Hope to see you on May 30. Happy reading!
Five Questions for My Story
Who is your favorite fictional character?
I’m not very original, but there are few characters as winning and as appealing as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Second pick: The entire Tull family in Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
If stranded on an island with one book, what would it be?
Probably something really long that I’ve never found the time to read—like Anna Karenina or War and Peace. Or, choosing something from a favorite writer, Selected Stories by Alice Munro.
A book you think all lgbt youth should read?
I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip. by John Donovan. The first gay YA novel ever written. Sure, it’s slightly dated, but it’s still a wonderful, lovely novel about finding your way in the world.
Which character do you admire most in What They Always Tell Us?
Gosh, I love all of my characters! (Well, not all, but most. I’m looking at you, Tyler!) It’s impossible for me to choose between James and Alex, so let’s just say I admire Nathen the most—for his self-assurance and for his kindness. He really is a sweetheart, and a hero.
What person in history would you like to have been?
Such a tough question! Maybe Jesus, so I could tell people, without any doubt, that I love everyone—including gay people? Maybe the son of someone insanely wealthy like J. P. Morgan so I could stay at home all day and write and never worry about bills? Or maybe Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon? Cleopatra? Ha. When all is said and done, I’m happy to be who I am, living when I am.
April 8th, 2012
I’m a little late on this, but now that the Lambda Literary Award finalists have been announced, there’s some consensus on what critics and librarians thought were some of the best books for GLBTQ youths from 2011.
Let’s start with the Lammys. The finalists this year are as follows:
Gemini Bites, by Patrick Ryan, Scholastic
Huntress, by Malinda Lo, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
I am J, by Cris Beam, Little, Brown Books for Children
PINK, by Lili Wilkinson, HarperCollins
Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy, by Bil Wright, Simon & Schuster
Patrick Ryan is a good friend of mine, and I believe he’s been nominated for every book he’s written. Yay, Patrick! I also blurbed Cris Bean’s I Am J, and can vouch for its excellence. As always, this category is one of the strongest in the entire Lambda list. More info about the wards ceremony on June 4 can be found here.
Bil Wright’s Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy, a Lammy nominee, also won this year’s Stonewall Book Award from the American Library Association. PINK, another Lammy nominee, was named an honor book, as were these three books:
a + e 4ever drawn and written by Ilike Merey, published by Lethe Press
Money Boy written by Paul Yee, published by Groundwod Books
With or Without You by Brian Farrey, published by Simon Pulse.
I haven’t read any of those. But I’m always and shamefully behind on my reading.
Finally, the GLBT Round Table and Social Responsibilities Round Table of the ALA also named their annual Rainbow List for 2012. The full list is here, but here are their “10 exceptional choices from the list,” including a few of the aforementioned titles:
*Beam, Cris. I Am J. New York: Little Brown for Young Readers.
*Bray, Libba. Beauty Queens. New York: Scholastic.
*Brezenoff, Steve. Brooklyn Burning. Minneapolis: Carolrhod Lab.
*Goode, Laura. Sister Mischief. Sommerville: Candlewick.
*Lo, Malinda. Huntress. New York: Little Brown for Young Readers.
*Myracle, Lauren. Shine. New York: Abrams.
*Newman, Leslea. Donovan’s Big Day. Illustrated by Mike Dutton. New York: Tricycle Press.
*Peters, Julie Ann. She Loves You, She Loves You Not. New York: Little Brown for Young Readers.
*Ryan, Patrick. Gemini Bites. New York: Scholastic.
*Wright, Bil. Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Bil Wright’s book is the only one that made all three lists. Might that make it a favorite for the Lammy? Who knows. Either way, check out the lists and check out the books. I know I’ve added quite a few to my impossibly long and ever-growing “to be read” stack.
January 3rd, 2012
Note: I originally guest-posted this on the wonderful blog thebooksnugglers.com. Read the original post here.
I’m never able to read as much as I want to read. That’s my lament, year after year. Still, even as my “to read” pile gets higher and higher, I somehow manage to read about forty to fifty books each year. And, among those books, there are always a select few that stand out. The following books are a few of my favorites of the year. If you read them, I hope you love them as much as I did.
Let’s Kill Uncle by Rohan O’Grady
First published in 1963 for young children (in the days before there was even a category called “young adult”), this macabre little masterpiece was happily reissued in the spring by Bloomsbury. Let’s Kill Uncle tells the story of two children who meet one summer on a remote Canadian island. Barnaby, the orphan, is there to spend time with his uncle/guardian, and Christie was sent away by her mother for the summer, presumably so she could get the child out of her hair for a few months. Barnaby and Christie are delightfully ill-behaved, always stumbling into mischief of some sort, but it’s impossible not to love them. But why won’t anyone on the island believe them when they realize that Barnaby’s creepy and wicked uncle is trying to kill him? That’s when the two children realize that they’ll just have to kill him first. Funny, dark, touching, full of local color and a vibrant cast of eccentric characters (including an escaped, aged cougar), Let’s Kill Uncle is a classic worth rediscovering.
In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard
Beard’s debut novel is hilarious but also serious, and is brilliantly told from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old girl growing up in Ohio in the 1970s. Not much happens here plot-wise—in many ways it’s the standard coming-of-age story, where an awkward girl suddenly discovers boys and deals with the indignities of daily life as a teenager. But Beard’s writing is so sharp, so exquisitely detailed, so witty, and so emotionally honest, that the story feels revelatory. I haven’t read many books that have taken me so deeply and convincingly inside the head of a female adolescent. Here’s just one of the narrator’s wonderfully wry observations: “I hate the phrase late bloomers. It sounds old fashioned and vaguely rank, like something a prairie women would wear under her sweaty calico dress.” Read this book and savor every sentence.
If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter
Ryan Van Mater’s collection of personal essays traces his life from boyhood to adolescence to adulthood—a life that is filtered through the lens of growing up gay. Van Meter has the special ability that all great writers have—he makes the personal feel universal. When I read these pieces—about trying on women’s clothes, about first love, about hating the outdoors—I nodded my head in recognition so many times that I almost got whiplash. The entire collection is a beauty. But it’s worth buying for the first essay alone, a gem entitled “First.” It will leave your heart aching, but in a good way.
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
Already a finalist for the National Book Award this fall, don’t be surprised if Gary D. Schmidt’s novel wins the Newberry in a few weeks. It’s been almost universally acclaimed, and after reading it, I agreed with all the laudatory praise. It brims with life, and is about family, friendship, growing up, and the power of art to transform a life. If that makes it sound boring, well, trust me, it’s not. It’s actually a rip-roaring page-turner with a heart of gold.
December 1st, 2011
A few recent articles have been weighing in about YA lit. Most recently, the Boston Globe published an article called “Young Adult Novels Heating Up the Charts.” Really, this is news? I guess it’s not news to me, since I work in the publishing industry and because I’m a YA writer. But is that really news to anyone who doesn’t live under a rock? It seems like every week or so we have an article about how popular YA is becoming, how adults are now reading more and more YA, how “mature” YA lit is becoming, how these books really are quite good and even—shock of shocks—actually well written. Yada yada yada. Every article dutifully ticks off the books that paved the way—Harry Potter, then the Twilight novels—and then circles around to the newest sensation, The Hunger Games trilogy. I suppose these stories have their place, and anything that highlights the YA world is fine with me, but it also just seems like the same article gets dusted off every few months, presented as something new.
A few of these recent pieces even had near-identical titles: The Atlantic’s “How Young Adult Fiction Came of Age” and Publishers Weekly’s “YA Comes of Age.” Once again, I came away from these stories feeling like I had not read anything new. The PW article—which opens with “The young adult market these days is a bit like a nephew you haven’t seen in years: transformed from a little darling into a hulking almost-grownup who is maybe even a little scary”—largely discussed trends in YA, touching on the Harry/Twilight/Hunger trifecta, naturally. Interestingly, the article, quoting agents and editors, seemed to predict that the paranormal genre is losing steam. But who knows? Kids still seem to eat these up. I keep waiting for dystopia books to lose steam, and yet more and more keep coming out, and they all seem to be pretty successful. The Atlantic article at least concluded with a great take-away quote from Erin Kelly, a novelist and short story writer, discussing the challenges of writing YA, in case anyone out there thought it was not only easier to read such books, but also easier to them:
You have to remember a time from your past–the sound of sneakers on the gym floor, the smell of lockers and middle school hallways and, most importantly, the way it felt to be an adolescent. You have to remember the struggle of wanting to be an individual, but needing to fit in, of loving and hating your parents at the same time, of trying to maneuver through the social strata. And you not only have to remember what adolescence feels and looks like, you have to be able to convey it with a believable tone and voice that relates to readers. I’m not sure anyone could call that easy. That there is nothing easy about writing a good book, whether it’s a picture book with 50 words or a novel with 50,000.”
If you want to read some fresher, more interesting articles, try some of these I’ve recently come across:
- Tracy Clark-Flory made the “case for raunchy teen lit” in Salon. I can get behind that.
- Again in Salon, Brian McGreevy argued “Why teens should read adult fiction.” Maybe a no-brainer, but still a good piece. Of course, YA lit—as we all know!—is go great now, so mature, that there’s no reason kids shouldn’t read both adult books and all the great YA books on the market.
- On the Today Show web site, of all places, Jennifer Worick featured the “10 Books You Really Should Have Read in High School.” Check out the list and see how deficient (or sufficient) your high school was. I think the only two books on this list that I read in high school were To Kill a Mockingbird and The Scarlet Letter. Sadly, I read most of the others (like The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye) on my own—and some I still haven’t read (a big “no thanks” on the Hesse).
- The National Book Awards for Young Adult Literature were overshadowed by the who Lauren Myracle mess. I won’t go into that again. Instead, let’s focus on the positive. The winner was Thanhha Lai for her novel-in-verse, Inside Out & Back Again. Lai immigrated from Vietnam to Alabama in the 1970s, so I’m extra curious about this one. Here’s an interview with Lai from Publishers Weekly. Meanwhile, all of the finalists were written up in a nice piece in the Washington Post. I can vouch for Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now. It’s wonderful.
August 1st, 2011
I finally got around to watching the series finale of Friday Night Lights, and now I feel like a good friend has moved away. I’ve written about my love—maybe the better word is “obsession”—for the show in the past. But now that series has ended its run, it is time for a brief reflection.
So, yeah, I’m depressed that it’s all over. I know I can always go back and watch all of the seasons on DVD. Plus, I’ve never actually read the book that it’s based on, written by Buzz Bissinger—so I have that to look forward to. Still, I’m a little bummed that we’ve said farewell to Eric and Tami Taylor and all of the other memorable denizens of Dillon, TX. It was a rare, graceful show—sentimental but tough, romantic but realistic, spare but expansive. I feel in love with the characters and worried about their fates as if they were actual friends. And I don’t think any show has made my cry as much on a consistent basis.
The final season was, no surprise, excellent. Even if the replacement teenagers (Luke, Vince, Becky, etc.) never held a candle to the original young stars of the first few seasons, I still grew to love and care about all of them, and about their stories, their lives, their futures. This is a testament to the show’s writers, but also to the young actors themselves. Hell, everyone involved—directors, casting directors, those who chose the music—were clearly top notch.
Since everyone deservedly focuses on the brilliance of Kyle Chandler’s Eric Taylor and Connie Britton’s Tami Taylor (who BETTER win Emmys this year), I’d like to single out one actor who stood out for me this season, and who encapsulates what makes Friday Night Lights so special: Stacey Oristano’s performance as Mindy Collette Riggins. Prior to this season, Mindy was known mainly as Tyra’s somewhat trampy pole-dancing older sister, and then as Billy Riggins’ girlfriend and eventual wife. But this season, Mindy emerged into a full-blooded, wonderful character, caring for her new baby, dealing with her guilt-addled and still-immature husband, and also taking young Becky under her wing, reluctantly and then full-heartedly becoming her de-facto mother/big sister. Mindy was a perfect example of how, on this show, even the minor characters can be deep, fleshed-out people, full of their own hurts and small triumphs. Somehow, this shallow-seeming stripper turned into a compelling young woman, revealing both her vulnerabilities and strong maternal instincts. Watching Oristano as Mindy was one of the chief pleasures of this wonderful, pleasure-filled final season.
And what a finale. (Spoiler alert!) The final minutes, especially, were brilliant. The camera cuts away from the climactic last play of the state championship game—as the ball careens through the air toward the end zone, as the seconds tick down on the game clock—to reveal where the characters lives have gone eight months later. It felt, at first, like we were being denied some big dramatic moment. Did they win the game or not? If so, why can’t we see the explosive celebration? But in the end, it was the perfect way to end the series. Because although football was a huge part of the show, it was never just about football, it was about the characters. And the final minutes left us with indelible images of these characters and the lives they continue to live, both on and off the football field.
Anyway, I could go on and on. But before I shut up about Friday Night Lights, I wanted to share some wonderful links, articles, and other tidbits I’ve come across the past few weeks.
- First up are two awesome video compilations. This one is a montage of all the times Tami Taylor has said “y’all.” Maybe it’s not even exhaustive, but it is pretty awesome. I mean, how can you not love this woman? And here’s a great compilation of Coach Eric Taylor’s moving and oft-tear-jerking speeches on the show, including the famous motto, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”
- If you’re a newbie to the show, or a long-time fan, you’ll love this (mostly) complete cast roster from all five seasons, covering everyone from tragic-to-triumphant Jason Street to Devin and Coach Stan Traub, two of the only gay characters ever to make an appearance on the show.
- Perhaps the most amazing read of all is this oral history of the TV series, which appeared on the new sports blog Grantland. True fans of the show will eat this up. I only wish it had been about a hundred pages longer.
- I think I already referenced this article, which compared Friday Night Lights with Glee, and lamented how the latter show grabbed all of the ratings glory. It’s a great read. I love, particularly, what the writer, Heather Havrilesky, writes near the end: “’Friday Night Lights’ embraces the rough edges, the fumbling, the understated beauty and uncertainty of the everyday. It’s rare for a TV show to acknowledge that happiness is a fragile, transient thing.”
- And, finally, it turns out that one of my favorite fiction writers, Lorrie Moore, is also a huge fan of the show. This week, she pens a juicy essay and appreciation for The New York Review of Books.
July 11th, 2011
Now that we’re well into July, when the dog days of summer are settling in, why not pick up a page-turning novel about being trapped in a brutal winter snowstorm? That’s what you get in Michael Northrop’s TRAPPED. Recently on NPR.com, a reviewer wrote, “Michael Northrop’s tension in Trapped builds the way the snow does, accumulating in drifts, blocking windows, casting the story into darkness. The novel buries you.” Michael writes so well about the cold, about the snow, that you’ll soon forget that, outside, it’s blisteringly hot and humid. You might even reach for a heavy blanket to warm your chilled bones.
Michael is a pal, and he’s also in my YA Book Club, so he kindly agreed to answer some questions. Enjoy, and then go pick up his novel!
The details of the snow and the bitter cold described in TRAPPED are so visceral and realistic. Can I assume you grew up in a wintry environment?
I did! I grew up in a snowy, little no-stoplight-having town in New England. When I was a kid, we got around four feet of snow in one storm, and I wasn’t much more than four feet tall at the time. There is a scene in TRAPPED where a character has to walk through chest-deep snow, and I’ve definitely done that.
Have you ever experienced a blizzard like the one described in TRAPPED?
No, no, nothing up to the second floor, but I have spent hours staring out the window and wondering if the snow will ever stop. One of my favorite poems is Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”—the original 13 Reasons Why!—the part that goes:
It was evening all afternoon./It was snowing/And it was going to snow.
I know that feeling!
Did you need to do any research while writing the novel?
I did some research on big winter storms. I used to edit the meteorology section of The World Almanac (among many other sections), and I’m a huge Discovery Channel nerd, so I already knew a lot of that. I didn’t want to get too bogged down in details, though. The characters really don’t understand their environment all that well and encounter it by observation. They don’t know exactly why the heat shuts off, for example, but they can feel it slowly bleeding from the building.
Exploring this question further, did you have to do any kind of “field research”? For instance, did you create your own snowshoes (as Scotty does)? Have you ever tried to build a go-kart? I imagine fact-checking a lot of this stuff was a challenge! But everything rings completely true.
I basically stayed close to home on that stuff. I was a small-town kid. I’ve used snowshoes, taken shop class, gazed in ineffable, openmouthed envy at another kid’s go-kart. It’s stuff that most kids don’t do anymore, and maybe never did, so it seems sort of exotic or nostalgic or something, but it was comfortable terrain for me.
Early in the novel, the narrator, Scotty, foreshadows that things aren’t going to end well for all of the students. This, of course, creates an almost unbearable tension throughout the novel. Did you know from the outset the fates of each of the characters, or did this shift as you went along?
No, I didn’t know at all! It was actually kind of eerie, because I wrote that line in the opening section (about not everyone surviving) in my typical writing trance. I basically caffeinate, crack my knuckles, look down, and start typing. On a good day, which that was, when I look up again I’ve got a thousand words done and a sore back. I remember thinking: Well, that’s that. I’ve got to kill at least one of them now… Such a morbid thought!
The school building almost becomes a menacing character in the novel. Kind of like the claustrophobic spaceship in Alien, or perhaps a haunted house from a ghost story. Was this intentional?
Yeah, absolutely. I think almost every student feels trapped in school at some point anyway. It’s not like they have a choice about being there. So the most basic thing I was trying to do was just to literalize that: Yes, last period can feel like it’s dragging on for days. The way we encounter our environment is extremely subjective, even under normal conditions. But what if it really did drag on for days? And your life was in real danger? It’s the same basic idea. The spaceship in Alien didn’t seem especially claustrophobic until something started hunting them on it.
In writing TRAPPED, were you influenced at all by horror novels or movies? Are you a fan of horror novels and movies?
I am a fan, and I’m sure I was influenced, but it’s hard to say how or to what extent. I have been consuming that content almost my entire life, from those first ghost stories when I was a kid right up to this morning, when I saved Insidious to my Netflix queue. It is so deeply ingrained in me—in most of us, I’d imagine. I did read Poe in high school and college, though, and I’m sure some of that probably seeped in there. You know, a drop of “The Cask of Amontillado” here, a swipe of “The Pit and the Pendulum” there . . .
What character did you relate to most in the novel? Least?
I related to Scotty the most. Like him, I was a serious athlete in high school but not necessarily a total jock. He’s also the main character, so I probably gave him more little bits and pieces of myself than the others. I’m not sure about the least, though. I probably have a second-, third-, and fourth-place, and then everyone else is tied. They all had something important about them that I felt I understood, at least by the end.
If you were trapped in a snowstorm for a week, what book would you want to have with you?
Reading is hard work for me (I am dyslexic), so rereading has always seemed like a huge, vaguely unfair chore. I’d definitely want some big, immersive book that I’d never read before but would end up loving. Something like The Secret History or Moby-Dick.
Speaking of books, have you read any books recently that knocked your socks off?
Are you fishing for me to say Matterhorn here? Because that was last year, Martin. All right? Would you please give it a rest? (Haha!) Matterhorn—a big, enthralling, devastating novel about the Vietnam War for those who don’t work at the publisher—was definitely the best book I read in 2010. I haven’t quite found a match for it so far this year, either, but I have high hopes for a few recent acquisitions. I’ll let you know!
June 7th, 2011
There have been so many great responses and follow-ups to the Wall Street Journal article on “dark” and “lurid” YA novels, and below are some that I think are worth sharing–that is, if you’re not sick of this story already!
Josie Leavitt gives a bookseller’s perspective in Publishers Weekly. “There is balance to everything, and it’s just so unfortunate that Meghan Cox Gurdon’s article had none.”
On the Wall Street Journal’s arts blog (on of the best arts blogs out there, by the way), “Speakeasy,” Christopher John Farley offers a nice, reasoned response from a parent’s point of view.
Linda Holmes, writing in her NPR column, “Monkey See,” has some great points—the full article is well worth a read. Shielding kids from books with dark themes, she argues, is pointless, because the “kids who are reading scary YA fiction . . . are the kids who, if YA fiction weren’t dark and creepy sometimes, would just read dark and creepy books for adults.” Right? Hell, I was reading V. C. Andrews in high school, and plenty of others were reading Stephen King. Kids are still reading these types of books, YA or not. Holmes concludes, “Not reading scary, weird, dark, or dirty books wouldn’t have made me a different kid. It certainly wouldn’t have made me a happier kid. It might have made me a kid who read less, though.”
And finally, perhaps my favorite response—short and to-the-point and no-nonsense—is Horn Book’s Roger Sutton. He writes, simply, that “people like reading about people like themselves whose problems are more interesting than their own.” As for the whole somewhat grandiose “YA Saves” claims, Sutton says that’s all well and good, but writes, “Give me an author who is truthful and talented; spare me an author who writes to save lives.” I had this exact conversation with a friend last night, another YA writer. Sure, we hope our books make a difference and offer comfort. But as Sutton said, writers should just write honestly, without worrying about saving the world and all the kids in it. Finally, Sutton has this message to kids and parents: “If you’re a teen who is running your reading choices by your parents, grow up. If you’re a parent who feels compelled to approve your child’s reading, shut up. The books and the kids are all right.” Well said, Roger, well said.
June 6th, 2011
By now you’ve probably read—or read about—this article in the Wall Street Journal about the “ever-more appalling offerings for adolescent readers.” It’s a nasty little piece—condescending, insulting, school-marmish, reactionary, and unfair.
Meghan Cox Gurdon has been the Journal’s children’s book critic for some time now. I’ve actually read and enjoyed many of her reviews, though I’ve always noticed a slightly conservative streak. For instance, I recently read a review where Mrs. Gurdon lamented the “foul language” in a book. I think I’ve written in the past about how I hate when critics cry foul about bad language in books. I mean, get real. Anyway, her newest piece is not a review but an essay of sorts, splashed on the front page of the Journal’s usually quite fine Saturday book review section. The Internet exploded with rebuttals almost immediately, with the hashtag #YAsaves respresenting all of those who disagreed with Gurdon’s attack. You can ses some of those excellent responses here.
In attacking a rash of YA novels that are “lurid” and “dark,” Gurdon goes on to produce an embarrassing and out-of-touch screed. She laments that many YA books today are filled with “kidnappings and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings,” not to mention profanity. She seems to think these “lurid” subjects are included in books only to shock and get attention. Well, this might be true in some books. But she doesn’t get it. Because overall, these books—including the ones she singles out, books by authors like Sherman Alexie and Lauren Myracle—show teenagers the world in all of its dark reality. Sure, life can be great, full of lollipops and unicorns and happy days (okay, maybe not unicorns). But it can also be shitty and awful. Bad things do happen to kids in the world. Turn on the news, open a newspaper, you’ll see. Besides (and this is true of all fiction really, not just YA), no one really wants to read a book where all the characters are happy and have perfect lives. That’s not why most people read fiction. Fiction requires conflict, drama, challenge. Not that Gurdon is arguing for such shiny-happy-only books. But in trashing a good number of books that handle dark subjects, she seems to imply that reality has no place in books for kids.
I imagine she’d find plenty to object to in my own novel—the profanity (of course), the sexual situations, drinking, and drugs. The depiction of how some teenagers treat other teenagers with cruelty and insensitivity. I can only imagine that the presence of a gay teen who actually has sexual experiences would send her into a tizzy. I didn’t include any of these things to “shock” readers. In fact, at times, I was tempted to leave things out. Things that were, perhaps, too real. But, more than anything, I wanted to paint a realistic picture of the lives of two teenage boys. Even growing up in the conservative south, it was a reality that my peers drank, had sex, did drugs, cussed, and perhaps worse. Maybe many parents think their children live a Pollyanna existence, but that’s not the reality for most kids.
Gurdon argues, fairly, that parents should be able to monitor what their children read—and protect them from certain subjects. That is parenting, after all. She then concludes by writing, “No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try and bulldoze coarseness and misery into their children’s lives.” Okay, true, no family is obliged. But overprotecting children from some of life’s dark realities—well, good luck with that. I would hope most parents would resist such policing. Sure, a ten-year-old girl probably shouldn’t read a novel about a girl who’s abducted and used as a sex slave by a crazed pederast. But there are plenty of challenging, tough reads out there that would be worth such a child’s time. Presenting reality and some unpleasant truths is hardly bulldozing “coarseness and misery” into children’s lives. Chances are, kids know about this stuff anyway.
Growing up, I had a mostly happy childhood, great parents, stability. Reading about worlds where kids didn’t have the same things only made me appreciate my own life more. Reading books about kids who did drugs or who beat people up didn’t make me want to go out and so the same thing. That’s not how it works for most people. If everyone went out and copied the behavior of people in books, well, the world would be even more chaotic and nuts than it already is.
To add insult to injury, Gurdon appends her story with a list of worthy recommended books for teens. Many of these are great—especially the books by Mark Haddon and Robert C. O’Brien, two of my own favorites—but these titles barely just scratch the surface, and some aren’t even YA books at all. Of all the books being written today for teens, these are the only ones she can recommend?
In the end, I guess it’s good that Gurdon wrote her piece, because it’s getting people talking once again about the value of YA fiction. I’m not a big fan of the idea that books are worthwhile only for the lessons they impart. Books should be entertaining, they should provide a window to a new world. Or, if not showing a glimpse of an entirely new world, great books can show your own world in a new light. Despite what Gurdon believes, many of the books she dismisses do these things quite well. And they won’t scar or tarnish teenagers. They’ll show them the world as it is, even if that world is way too dark for Gurdon’s liking.